Time for Goodbyes

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By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In Washington, when an official departs from his or her post, the proffered reason is often "to spend more time with my family." Translation: either "I've been fired" or "I can't stand working for that so-and-so for another minute."

Or the given excuse may be, "I want to explore opportunities in the private sector." Translation: "I can make much more money as a lobbyist."

I claim none of those as my reason for writing this, my last Food 101 column for The Washington Post. It has been almost 10 years since Nancy McKeon, then food editor, asked me to write a biweekly column on food science. After meeting some 260 deadlines, I am ready to move on and focus on other things.

The past decade has seen important changes in the world of food. Most significant from a technical point of view was the launching in 1997 of El Taller (el tal-YEHR, the workshop) in Catalonia, Spain, by Ferran Adrià, chef at the restaurant El Bulli, along with his brother Albert and their colleague, Oriol Castro. There, using a disciplined scientific approach, they experiment with the deconstruction and reconstruction of foods into new and surprising chemical and physical forms, textures and flavors. The butt of ridicule at first, their espumas (foams), gels, faux caviars and liquid "olives" that burst in the mouth are being replicated by exuberant chefs around the world.

Hence the appearance in restaurant kitchens of substances such as liquid nitrogen, which, while fuming and boiling away as if in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, can freeze a banana rock-hard in seconds. (I used to demonstrate that for my freshman chemistry students, who were astonished to see me then smash the fruit to smithereens with a hammer.)

So have parlor (or lecture hall) tricks moved into the professional kitchen? Yes, in the hands of some chefs. But others are using these techniques as new opportunities for creativity. I predict, however, that few brand-new techniques will be coming along (barring nuclear reactors in the kitchen) and that tricks for tricks' sake will soon fade from the scene. Nevertheless, Adrià's ingenious innovations will live on. He has permanently transformed stodgy 19th-century classical cuisine into 21st-century just-plain-fun. And shouldn't eating be fun?

But that kind of alimentary alchemy was not my beat in Food 101. Nor were starred restaurants, "celebrity chefs" or even cooking per se. I used my scientific insights to clarify many food-related concepts and debunk as many others. I interpreted those menacing chemical names on food labels for today's bewildered supermarket shopper. I wrote about how to determine the amount of alcohol in a drink and the aromatic consequences of eating asparagus. I wrote about caviar spoons, champagne corks, food irradiation, jelly beans, liquid smoke, microwaves, plastic food containers, sea salt, Teflon and trans fats -- all of it peppered with puns both good and bad.

And it has been a blast, owing largely to my steadfast readers, with their stimulating questions and ever-appreciative feedback. Yes, I mean you. Take a bow.

Having expressed my affection for my family of readers, I will take the liberty of making a few personal observations.

In my several careers, I have always followed the advice of the great philosopher Yogi Berra: Whenever I came to a fork in the road, I took it. Some of the forks have led to designing laboratory buildings, writing textbooks, serving as dean on a round-the-world academic sea voyage, teaching graduate-level chemistry (in Spanish) in Venezuela, analyzing Marie Curie's Nobel Prize-winning PhD thesis at the Sorbonne, and consulting for UNESCO on higher education in Bangladesh.

Every decade or so I lifted my sights to look for new challenging forks in the road. After two decades of teaching and directing research in nuclear chemistry, I devoted a decade to university administration. I then left academe entirely to follow my earliest muse and devote my time to writing. I have since published four books that, in more than 20 languages, are edifying people all over the world. That sure makes a guy feel good.

So I'm doing it again. I plan to spend the bulk of my time working on the fifth book in my "Einstein" series. But inasmuch as I have learned to write and chew gum at the same time, you (and I) will never know in what concurrent guises I might turn up. Stay tuned.

Although your odds of receiving a response are rather slim in view of my backlog of some 1,700 unanswered e-mails, I will welcome any parting sentiments.

As I said, it's been a blast. Till we eat again (last pun, I promise), ¡hasta la vista, amigos!

Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached atwolke@pitt.edu.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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